A picture, properly portrayed, can convey a message better and stronger than a million words. The collective conscience of the entire world was shocked in 1972 on seeing a photo showing a nine year old running naked shouting hysterically after being injured in a napalm bomb attack in Vietnam. This photo conveyed the extent of atrocities committed by the USA backed forces in that country more effectively than all the writings on the subject.
Closer to the present, the video of George Floyd struggling for breath after being pinned to the ground by a white skinned cop in Wisconsin, leading ultimately to his death, haunted all those who watched it and brought out of the closet the racial prejudices and atrocities still practised in USA. Similarly, the picture of Sister Ann Rose Nu Twang, a Catholic nun, kneeling before heavily armed soldiers in Myanmar begging them not to shoot at children but to kill her instead has served to bring the attention of the world to the state of affairs prevailing inside that country, in the wake of the latest military coup, which took place on 1 February 2021.
History records that Britain left the Indian subcontinent and their colonies in South Asia during the fifth decade of the 20th century. India, the jewel of the British crown, comprising presently of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh attained independence in August 1947 while Myanmar and Sri Lanka followed suit the very next year. All these 5 countries have undergone considerable turmoil during the last seven decades, with only India and Sri Lanka successful in ensuring a smooth transition to democracy. The other three are under army rule for varying tenures, Myanmar has the dubious record of spending maximum time under military regime. Even now, the country finds their fledgling attempts to set up popular governments being thwarted by guns and bullets of the military junta.
Britain had annexed Myanmar (old Burma) to their empire through the three Anglo Burmese wars fought in 1826, 1852 and 1885, each of which increased the territory under the British Crown. From 1886 onwards Burma was ruled by Britain as part of their Indian empire, but a series of protests against the influx of Indians forced them to change their mind. In 1937, Britain established Burma as a separately administered territory with an anglophile Ba Maw as the Prime Minister. The entry of Japan into the II World War and the rapid advances made by the Japanese forces in Asia led to British rule being overthrown from Burma in August 1942. But the allied forces struck back in 1944, leading to withdrawal of Japanese army and reestablishment of British authority. In the end, almost 250,000 Burmese civilians had died, besides large scale devastation of territory.
Once World War II ended, Britain made renewed attempts to reestablish their administration but this move met with firm resistance from the local populace. An Anti Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) was formed with Aung San as its head. Soon Britain realised the futility of their measures and started negotiations with AFPFL for effecting smooth withdrawal and grant of independence, for which an agreement was concluded in January 1947. Following this, Aung San took the lead to negotiate with the important tribes and other ethnic minorities in this country, all of who agreed for an unified Burma, in the Panglong Conference held in February 1947. Not surprisingly, Aung San and his party won an overwhelming majority in the elections to the Constituent Assembly which took place in April 1947.
Assassination of Aung San
However, tragedy struck the country when Aung San and his senior colleagues were assassinated in July 1947 by a group of rogue soldiers who burst into the Secretariat and shot and killed them in cold blood. The mystery over this assassination continues to this date though U Saw, a former Prime Minister was arrested and sentenced to death after being found guilty for conceiving and executing this act. This bloodbath on the eve of the successful culmination of the struggle to drive out the imperialist forces from the country was an ominous portent about the challenges that the nascent democracy would face from the men in uniform in the years ahead.
When Britain finally left the country on 4 January 1948, they handed over the reins of the administration to U Nu, the first Prime Minster of free Burma. A new Constitution was enacted which provided for a bicameral legislature and elections were held thrice - in 1952, 1956 and 1960. But the military remained an important force within the domestic affairs as could be seen from the decision of U Nu to handover powers to a caretaker government headed by Gen. Ne Win in 1958 when the nation was plagued by internal disturbances. Army performed this task creditably and conducted the 1960 elections before handing back power to the democratically elected government under U Nu. However, the internal disturbances did not cease as some of the ethnic minorities who had been brought into the mainstream through the agreement in 1947 started demanding more powers within the federal structure and even threatened to secede from the Union. These developments along with the popular perception about corruption in high places eroded the credibility of the government. Armed forces, who had been waiting in the sidelines, moved in for the kill in March 1962, when Ne Win removed U Nu and took over powers of Head of State and government by designating himself as Chairman of Union Revolutionary Council.
The first 12 years from 1962 saw Myanmar being under martial law. In 1974 a new Constitution was enacted providing for a single party named Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), which comprised of men from armed forces, civil servants and a few left leaning politicians. BSPP ruled Myanmar till 1988 when the country plummeted to the level of one of the poorest nations in the globe. Widespread disturbances gave the military an excuse to stage a coup and come back to power, this time under the guise of ‘State Law and Order Restoration Council’ (SLORC). The general elections held in 1990 under supervision of SLORC saw National League for Democracy (NLD) under Aung San Suu Kyi win a sweeping majority. However, true to style, SLORC refused to hand over power to the winners of the ballot and instead placed Suu Kyi under house arrest!
The next two decades saw SLORC cling to power using repressive measures. The sanctions imposed by the western world had little impact on the military junta, who had their hands full fighting the numerous battles within the country against various ethnic groups and supporters of democracy. Finally, they called for general elections in 2010 which was won by the army backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). But the armed forces gradually started realising the need to share power with democratically elected popular government and allowed Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy (NLD) to move into the political mainstream.
Arrest of Suu Kyi
This development led to NLD sweeping the 2015 general elections. Suu Kyi, who was barred from becoming President, was elected as State Counsellor, a post similar to that of the Prime Minister. The elections of 2020 saw NLD win an overwhelming majority of seats, which led to USDP complain that there were widespread irregularities in the poll process. Military too supported the allegations of USDP, despite the election commission finding that there were no major irregularities. NLD, on their part, went ahead with preparations to form the new government with Suu Kyi as State Counsellor. This led to a standoff that ended with the armed forces taking over the administration on 1 February, the day the new Parliament was to convene. They also arrested Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders, besides declaring a state of national emergency and imposing strict control over travel and tele communications.
Military action has led to massive protests all over country, including in areas dominated by the ethnic minorities, who were not on friendly terms with NLD and Suu Kyi. Violent incidents are reported daily. Military action and violence have been condemned by the comity of nations, with the notable exception of China, which throws up the question whether the coup was executed with the blessings of leaders in Beijing.
The picture of Sister Ann Rose tells us the story of a cruel trigger happy junta that has no qualms about shooting down its own citizens. Incidentally the only battles that the armed forces in Myanmar have fought since 1948 were against their own citizens. Democracy evolves through numerous years of pain and struggle and Myanmar has had its own share of miseries in fighting for this basic right of human beings during its seven plus decades of existence. One hopes that the blood and tears that flow through this country presently results in the establishment of a political system that reflects the desires of its citizens and meets their aspirations.